While on the surface, my startup story seems pretty business as usual (launch, iterate, pivot, iterate), I learned problems with news are quite profound…
People care about news, just not individual stories
Our startup, Niaterra News, was originally designed as a news aggregator. It was clear that most people were having a problem getting their news, and they hated the news aggregators on the market for anything aside from relaxed magazine reading.
We thought that if we could deliver the right stories to people and display it in the right way (that felt like news to them, not a magazine or email inbox), it would help solve their problems.
What we found was that while we saw average visit durations to people’s personalized news site of over 20 minutes (they would park themselves on the site and get tons of news!), people weren’t running through the streets saying “you gotta get your news this way!”.
Our original assumption must have been wrong — you can’t solve people’s problem with news by picking the right stories. The reason for that is simple:
The problem with news is the stories themselves.
Most news stories just overwhelm people, and how they’re getting those stories doesn’t actually make a difference in their lives. So they are increasingly ignoring news. They glance at stuff as it floats by on Facebook, but don’t seek it out like they did a few years ago. Stories just don’t matter like they used to, and there’s just so much media to consume that news stories aren’t even missed.
The question is: how can news create value?
One story is not valuable – many is
People often complain about biased news, and it is a problem when it comes from a source that’s being ignorant or manipulative.
But, what we’ve found is that our users and consumers in general actually like biased coverage, partly because they know what they’re getting. They know where a Huffington Post story is coming from. Same is true of a Drudge Report story. That’s why those publications do so well.
What consumers don’t do is trust the sources blindly. If a topic is actually of interest to them, they prefer to seek out multiple viewpoints. Our users repeat the same story: most of the time they will ignore news except when a topic does pique their interest and they want to understand it. They don’t look for a single story, they look for multiple stories to see a topic from multiple perspectives.
So, ironically, bias both increases and decreases the value of a story at the same time. One story on its own doesn’t hold much value to people unless and until they can use it to paint a larger picture.
It’s that larger picture that has value to them — that’s what makes them smarter and helps impact their lives.
Unfortunately, they usually fail in their endeavor to see multiple sides of an issue. (It’s a pain in the ass tracking down a bunch of sources!)
Most news sites are going to die
…unless they get huge or charge subscriptions
I’ve written before about how making money from advertising is going to be increasingly difficult. The choice news sites have is either they need to start making things uniquely valuable enough that someone will pay for them, or be big enough that they can make a profit just by sheer volume of eyeballs.
At Niaterra News, we wanted to make something valuable enough that people will pay for it. We needed to stay off the hamster wheel of more pageviews = more money because it just ends up overwhelming consumers by delivering an endless stream of valueless info while the ad prices keep going down.
A new type of news
At this point, we knew we needed something different that creates value — that connects the dots between the stories to show a whole picture. And we knew that we should be good enough at it that we can make money off of subscriptions or we’ll likely be dead.
So, we invented a new type of news that helps people see both sides of issues by connecting the dots between the stories. This new type of news we’ve called a “News Nia” and they can be created by anyone. We will eventually charge for a premium service based on delivering Nias from thought leaders and our editors as well as Nias based on personalized topics that interest each user.
Each Nia shows a high-level summary of the key questions to help people decide which side of the issue they want to land on. At their core, they’re about evidence, not personal opinion. Quotes from evidence to support each side are able to be added by any user and people can up-vote the best quotes and questions so people can come together to help bring clarity to important issues.
We knew when we were designing Nias that they needed to be designed in a way where even though people had never seen anything like it before, they immediately understood what they were seeing — both sides of an issue. We weren’t going to be able to explain anything to them. If they didn’t “get it,” they were going to leave.
A critical design decision was not only to use a black and white metaphor, but also to have the two sides meet at an angle (we call it a “slash”) — users understood immediately that they were seeing both sides of an argument.
Evidence & social media double-standards
We knew there needed to be a way for people to share their thoughts, because people want to participate, but we knew their thoughts were going to muddy up more objective or authoritative quotes.
This is clearly part of a larger double-standard in social media we needed to deal with. People complain regularly about all of the stupid posts they see from their friends on social media, yet every time they share their own latest brain fart, they basically say “You’re welcome, world.”
There’s also a higher-level issue that we needed to deal with: evidence is evidence, and personal opinion is personal opinion. Nias need to showcase informed evidence — opinions can’t interfere.
That being said, we can’t just avoid the problem by not allowing people to contribute. If we don’t allow people to participate, the community won’t feel any ownership over the Nias, and we will miss out on their many great contributions.
The way we solved this problem was by having two main sections. The first section deals with evidence. Users aren’t sharing their thoughts — they’re sharing quote they’ve found elsewhere. So there is no opportunity to inject their thoughts directly. People can also upvote good quotes and downvote the bad, so the best stuff is what gets seen regardless.
The other section we call “final thoughts.” We knew there needed to be something to help people answer the “so what” after they’ve read the evidence and quotes — some sort of summary analysis. The final thoughts section is where people can add their own thoughts and analysis, but it’s sectioned based on what side they vote for. So if they vote Pro: Topic X, then they can only ever influence the comments among other people who are also Pro: Topic X, but never the evidence part of the Nia, nor comments from people with a different perspective. It also allows people to see more easily why people vote for which side. Users can also upvote final thoughts, so again, the best stuff floats to the top.
We’ve published Nias on everything from Raw Food vs Cooked Food, GMOs, BPA in products, Vitamin Supplements, Home Birth vs Hospital Birth. For the time-being, we are intentionally focusing on health, wellness, science, and greater-good topics, but we plan to expand to cover other areas that need Nias.
We’re seeing excellent conversion rates for people who visit a Nia for the first time and subscribe for more Nias. So far so good!
Jordan is the Founder, Lead Product Designer & Developer of Niaterra News. He frequently advises companies on product and strategy.